Sunday night's seasonal heart-warmer on NBC, "One Special Victory," has all the makings of a disaster.
You've got John Larroquette playing a yuppified idiot who gets convicted of disorderly conduct following a drunken escapade and is sentenced to community service, which consists of coaching a Special Olympics basketball team.
These could be the two hours in which you find out that Dan Fielding really has a heart of gold. Yuuck! It will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock,
Larroquette, of course, won a basketball team of supporting-actor Emmys playing the sexist put-down artist Fielding on NBC's "Night Court." But "One Special Victory" shows that he can do a lot more than hammer home a one-liner as this film turns out to be a real treat, a movie that warms the heart with the embers of genuine emotions, not the gas logs of push-button manipulation.
Larroquette's character is a high-living San Francisco real estate salesman named Bo who's living on the edge of his credit card. He's cutting deals on the side even as he eyes the boss' girlfriend around the office.
But he cuts it too close and it all starts to come tumbling down -- the threat of losing his real estate license, eviction from his rented house, a court judgment over missed alimony payments. All he's got left is his vintage Mercedes Benz convertible and its car phone.
After his drunken escapade -- he takes a sledge hammer to his own house -- and his sentence to community service, Bo shows up at the Golden Gate Recreation Center to do his duty as a basketball coach.
Then he meets his team.
There's a 40-year-old cross-eyed woman who likes to dribble the ball but wets her pants. There's a big guy who can't stand to be touched. There's a literal-minded savant. Another guy talks to his magic basketball. And there's a newcomer who can't talk and comes complete with an overbearing mother.
Now, if Bo had just gotten a tear in his eye, said that there was JTC no way he could do anything with these kids, and then accomplished the impossible, "One Special Victory" could have been written off as forgettable mush.
But that doesn't happen. Larroquette's character remains loathsome and despicable as long as he can get away with it. He makes fun of his players. He tries to get out of the assignment.
When the judge makes clear that he has no choice but to coach this team, he refuses to do anything special for this group. And, perhaps because no one has ever treated them this way -- with an odd sort of respect, as it turns out -- they respond. They love their new coach.
And these disabled people are not played for pity or sanctity. They are real people, warts and all. If what they do is funny, you're allowed to laugh.
A parallel theme is set up with the development of a potential relationship between Bo and Ellen, the woman who runs the rec center. She's played by always-believable Kathy Baker as a solid, centered woman, the diametric opposite of the flighty figures of fantasy who normally turn Bo's head in a bar where he plays his version of a pickup game.
Ultimately, of course, "One Special Victory" is a story of redemption, but the selfish streak does not disappear from Bo overnight. It hangs with a realistic stubbornness.
Even the final scene, the showdown basketball game, avoids the cliche it seems inevitably headed for, instead adding one more bauble to this very attractive Christmas tree of a movie.
ABC has its own story of redemption Sunday night. "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) at 9 o'clock, pads the story of that famous reply to a letter to the editor and gets a two-hour movie out of it.
The last time you saw Charles Bronson looking at the grave of his wife and kid, he came out with guns blazing in "Death Wish." This time he heads for his typewriter and comes out with Victorian prose.
The year is 1897. The place is New York. The Virginia who so strongly clings to her belief in the kindly elf is the daughter of a hard-working Irishman who can't get a job in the climate of discrimination. Richard Thomas gets to try on his brogue for that part.
Bronson's Frank Church has turned to the bottle after his wife died in childbirth. But Ed Asner is back as his city editor at the New York Sun, handing him the assignment that would lift his spirits as it has for generations since.
It's all done with nice sets, good actors and genuine earnestness, but "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" has that you've-seen-it-before predictability that often plagues Christmas movies.